The Immigrants Who Took Thursday Off—to Become American Citizens
While immigrants across the United States stayed home from work in protest on Thursday, 136 appeared in a Brooklyn courthouse for a swearing-in ceremony.
One place from which no immigrant stayed home in protest on Thursday was the ceremonial courtroom at Brooklyn federal court, where 136 applicants were sworn as new citizens.
By 10 a.m., they had all turned in the laminated green cards that had been allowing them to live legally in the United States, though had seemed less a protection against deportation since the presidential election.
They each received in exchange a large white envelope containing a diploma-sized Certificate of Naturalization that put them just an oath, a pledge, and a signature away from becoming as American as anybody.
Up on the wall of this wood-paneled chamber on the second floor were panels from an outsize mural called “The Role of the Immigrant in the Development of Industrial America” that had hung in Ellis Island before it closed. Much of the 190-foot-long artwork had been severely damaged when a storm compromised the roof of the shuttered facility, and it was destined for the trash heap when Brooklyn federal Judge Jacob Mishler rescued it in 1970.
The restored sections depicted muscular immigrants laboring in a steel mill and laying railroad tracks and toiling in fields. Many of America’s steel mills have since closed and the railroads have been largely replaced by highways, but there are plenty of immigrants working on farms and many more lugging construction materials and washing dishes and scrubbing floors and performing other low-wage tasks that Americans largely shun. The idea behind Thursday’s protest was for these often-unnoticed workers to stay home and dramatize their necessity with a sudden absence.
But this swearing-in was a venue where their presence put them at center stage of America’s central and ongoing drama, the one from which its true greatness arises, as even the grandson of German immigrant Friedrich Trump should attest. These most recent applicants sat row upon row beneath the mural, clutching their white envelopes, even the oldest of them with a youthful glint of expectation in their eyes.
“Please take out your packet,” an immigration officer named Nanotte Manoly instructed. “Make sure you have this little white card inside.”
They did as bid and took out a white card that was printed on both sides.
“On the one side you have the Oath of Allegiance, on the other side the Pledge of Allegiance,” Manoly told them.
Manoly informed them that everybody was expected to give actual voice to both in full.
“We reserve the right to pull you out of this if you do not say the words,” she warned. “I have to see your lips move. If I do not, I can pull you out.”
She was firm, but much closer to warm than icy. She offered some practical advice.
“Do not laminate your certificate,” she said. “Please don’t do it. If you do it, it is invalid.”
The certificates were not meant to be carried in a wallet or purse like a green card. The presumption was that the holders would not have to be perpetually ready to prove they belonged.
A young woman from a nonprofit agency stepped up before the applicants.
“I want to say congratulations,” she said. “It’s a transition and it’s a transition you’ve worked very hard to earn. What is it you think the most important responsibility to have as citizens?”
A remarkable number of the applicants immediately offered the same answer.
The response suggested that a heightened awareness of the importance of the ballot may be one benefit of a presidential election that demonstrated the mind-bending difference just 30,000 votes in three states can make. The young woman distributed voter registration forms that many of the applicants filled out while they waited for the ceremony to commence.
“I will collect them from everyone later,” the young woman said.
The applicants’ families had been up in the third-floor cafeteria but were now admitted into the courtroom for the big moment. Muhammad Malik of Bangladesh had himself become a citizen in 2012. He now stood holding his 1-year-old son, Raseen Malik, waiting to watch his wife, Rajia Bedum, become a Bangladeshi-American, which is to say an American. The only voice in the room was the son’s, in a language all his own that knows no nationality.
Manoly stepped up again.
“Applicants, if you have to use the bathroom, please go now,” she announced. “Come back in two minutes. If the judge is here swearing the Oath of Allegiance and you miss one word of it, we have to reschedule you.”
A few stepped out and hurried back just before Deputy Clerk Argentina Solorzano announced that the judge was entering.
“All rise!” Solorzano said. “The Honorable Steven Gold presiding.”
Gold entered in black robes that seemed only to brighten his smile.
“Good morning, everybody,” he said.
“Good morning!” the applicants said.
Gold looked on as Solorzano asked the applicants to raise their right hand and repeat after her. Most of them read along from the white card.
“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”
Manoly did indeed seem to be checking to ensure everybody’s lips were moving. Nobody had been pulled out and all the applicants were fledgling citizens as Solorzano turned toward the American flag standing in the front left corner of the courtroom.
“And now we are going to pledge allegiance to our flag,” Solorzano said.
The flag truly was now theirs as well and with no prompting from the clerk, the new Americans who had raised their right hand to take the oath now placed it over their heart. Solorzano and the judge and Manoly and everybody else present did the same.
The judge spoke after the oath was done.
“Well, everybody, congratulations,” he began.
The courtroom erupted into applause.
“It’s really an honor and a privilege to be the one to welcome you today as the newest citizens of the United States of America,” he continued.
Gold told them that no matter where they were from, America was now as much their country as it was his country, as it was the country of the first people who had settled it centuries before.
“We embrace you and we bless you,” he said.
He enumerated some of the freedoms they were guaranteed and urged them to become active citizens, to educate themselves about issues important to them, to vote for candidates who best seem to represent their views, to keep apprised of what is going on in their neighborhoods and schools, and to voice their opinions.
“Freedom is like a muscle. When it’s exercised, it stays strong,” he said.
Gold allowed that America has its troubles, but it is still the proverbial land of opportunity, where you can make a wonderful life for you and your family.
“I hope all of you are excited and happy today,” he said.
Gold was still smiling as he departed. The new Americans lined up at a table to confirm that the certificate bore the correct name and to sign it in front of a clerk. A good number of them stepped away holding the certificate in front of them, staring at their name and photo as if it were not quite real.
Marmee Cosico was beaming as she held Certificate of Naturalization No. 38774583. She is an actress who appeared in HBO’s Too Big to Fail.
“You can watch me in the Beijing scene,” she said.
She also works as an interpreter for those who speak only the Tagalog of her native Philippines. She has worked in the courts and at hospitals. She interpreted at the Board of Elections when she was unable to vote.
“I was active even before I became a citizen,” she said. “I am useful to the country.”
Cosico had been happy enough with just a green card until she saw news reports of a speech that Donald Trump gave in August in which he included the Philippines among the “terrorist nations.” Trump had complained, “We are letting people come in from terrorist nations that shouldn’t be allowed because you can’t vet them,” adding, “This is a practice that has to stop,” and declaring, “We’re dealing with animals.”
Trump subsequently apologized, but Cosico had decided by then that the time had arrived to become a citizen.
“When Trump gave that speech, I got scared,” she recalled.
Cosico was particularly worried about what deportation might mean for her because her mother died in America and is buried on Long Island.
“I couldn’t visit her in the cemetery,” Cosico said.
That fear was gone. And, along with the other new citizens, Cosico had handed in her voter registration form on the way out of the courtroom. She will now be able to vote not just for the Screen Actors Guild Awards, but in elections for City Council, mayor, governor, Congress, Senate, and, of course, president.
Cosico continued down the courthouse hallway, passing framed copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. On another wall was a reproduction of a newspaper article about a mass swearing-in ceremony for 6,000 new citizens at Ebbets Field on Nov. 11, 1954, the first Veterans Day. The then U.S. attorney general, Herbert Brownell, had addressed the crowd, speaking of those who had previously arrived in America only to be turned away. He said prospective immigrants would now be cleared before they left their home country and thereby spared what he rightly termed “heartbreak.”
Two floors above Cosico was the courtroom where Judge Ann Donnelly presides. Donnelly was on call on the weekend in January when Trump issued his executive order banning travel to the U.S. by people from seven nations that are supposedly hotbeds of terrorism, though not including the Philippines. A number of legal visitors landed that Saturday only to be turned away and suffer the very kind of heartbreak that Brownell said would end more than a half-century before. Donnelly had issued a stay, meeting seeming chaos with calm logic based on the law and an unshakable sense of fairness.
The following Tuesday, Donnelly had the more welcome task of presiding over a swearing-in. She pronounced this the “happiest and nicest” of her duties.
“Our country is at its best when we focus on the things we share,” Donnelly said.
On Thursday, it was Gold’s turn for the happy duty. And nobody seemed happier than Cosico.
“It’s an American dream for me,” she said as she departed.
Behind Cosico came 23-year-old Nusrat Jahan and her parents, the three of them now all suddenly Bangladeshi-Americans. Jahan will be making a contribution not contemplated by “The Role of the Immigrant” mural in the courtroom.
“Biomedical informatics,” she replied when asked what she had studied in school.
She added, “It’s really cool.”
She now hopes to get a Ph.D. in microbiology.
“I want to do research,” she said.
And then came Muhammad Malik and little Raseen and the newest American in the family, Rajia Bedum. The boy had fallen asleep in his father’s arms during the happy ceremony and continued to doze as they started toward the exit.
“It’s his future,” Malik said of his son.
He continued, “We have some goals for him… Maybe he’ll be making a doctor.”
The father himself works in a restaurant, but he was taking Thursday off, and not because of the protest. He had something else to do, and no decent soul of any persuasion or political view could have rightly faulted him.
“Celebrate,” he said.